The Commerce Journal

April 23, 2013

Emergency Management Coordinator details week spent in West

By Joseph Hamrick
The Commerce Journal

COMMERCE — Several Hunt County leaders, including police chiefs from Commerce and Greenville, received a first-hand account of what happened in West, Texas, when Josh Roberts, district coordinator for Texas Department of Public Safety Division of Emergency Management for Region 1, spoke of how emergency personnel responded to the explosion that occurred on April 17.

The “Senior Officials Workshop” met Tuesday inside the Emergency Operations Center inside the Commerce Police Department.

Roberts said he has had plenty of experience with handling disasters, including being the lead staff for the April 3, 2012, tornado that hit Dallas, and last year’s West Nile Virus prevention.

From 1980 through 2008, disasters in Texas caused an estimated $27 billion worth of damages.

“This shows the reasons why we need emergency management in our great state of Texas,” he said. “Like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, something’s bound to happen.”

Roberts said his emergency management training, and the use of social media came into play during the explosion in West, Texas.

Through the use of satellite phones, Roberts said he was able to be briefed of the situation and help coordinate while en route to West.

“The first thing we did was to develop an organization chart,” he said, adding that by the time he arrived, there were more than 200 emergency personnel workers on the scene. “We knew real quick this was going to be an extended operation.”

Roberts said the personnel had daily 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. briefings before and after the day to keep the workers and volunteers organized.

Roberts told a story that touched his heart of a little 10-year-old girl who came up to the center looking for her papa.

“She told us ‘I know he’s probably dead, but I drew this picture to help y’all find him,’” he said.  

Sometimes as much as nine blocks away, Roberts said windows from houses and businesses had been blown out from the blast.

Roberts would drive through the community to help assess the damages, and showed pictures of ruined houses, apartment complexes and an elementary school that was across the street.

“It’s hard to describe the sounds, the smells of the fire,” he said.

Thousands of volunteers came down to assist with the clean up and distribution of food and clothing to the people of West, including Team Rubicon, which is a volunteer organization made up of veterans who respond to emergencies and disasters.

“They arrived at 2 a.m. and had everything set up by 7 a.m.,” he said. “I can’t say enough about them.”

Several companies, including Starbucks, Jack in the Box, Brookshire’s, HEB and others donated everything from 130 gallons of free coffee every day to food and other daily items at mobile centers the companies set up.

“There was not enough space in the city of West that could handle the amount of donations,” he said. “There are no finer folks on earth than those in rural communities.”

More than 130,000 cases of bottled water have been donated to West so far. Roberts said if people are wanting to donate, gift cards and cash are the best way to go because of perishable foods.